United States officials are praising what they see as the beginning of a widespread political commitment in Latin America to wipe out the illicit narcotics trade. It is a change in attitude among government leaders in the region that is viewed in Washington as a major boost to US efforts to combat the international production and trafficking in heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.
``We are seeing far more regional cooperation and awareness than ever before,'' says Jon R. Thomas, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters.
``And that creates opportunities for us to do more than we have ever been able to do in the past,'' he adds.
In the past, Latin American officials in the major narcotics-producing nations seemed intent on blaming the proliferation of drug smuggling groups in their countries on the high rate of drug addiction in the US. To them, it was a US problem. They resented what they saw as the US trying to spread the blame for its narcotics problems on countries where the illicit drugs were grown.
Today, that has changed.
``There is now universal recognition . . . that illicit narcotics trafficking is our mutual problem,'' says Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D) of New York, chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, who returned this week from a seven-nation tour of South America.
``We can end the debate over whether producers or consumers are to blame, and move on to cooperative efforts in the hemisphere to protect our citizens from the plague of narcotics trafficking,'' Representative Rangel says.
American officials attribute the shift in attitude among Latin American leaders to three factors:
Increasing drug addiction among young people in Latin America.
A growing threat to the national security of the producing countries from subversive groups and corrupt officials financed by drug runners.
A recognition that the US is serious about its antidrug campaign, and is pursuing a hard-line approach domestically as well as overseas.
The government's hard-line approach is evident in a measure signed recently by President Reagan that would cut off US foreign aid to Bolivia and Peru unless they take steps this year to increase eradication of illicit coca crops. Coca is the leafy plant used to produce cocaine.
Bolivia, slated to receive $56.8 million in US aid, must enact a series of antidrug laws and destroy 10,000 acres of coca. There are about 80,000 acres of illegal coca currently being grown in Bolivia.
Peru, with $132 million in US aid on the line, must develop a formal eradication program and begin to carry it out. There are an estimated 150,000 acres of illict coca in Peru.
US officials expect that recently elected governments in Peru and Bolivia will satisfy the aid requirements. They also hope the new governments will boost cooperation with the US in antidrug efforts and -- even more important -- work within their countries to build a political resolve to put narcotics growers and traffickers out of business.
``The solution [to the narcotics problem in Latin America] must begin with a strong political commitment and will on the part of the governments,'' Mr. Thomas says. ``Now we are beginning to see that political commitment.''
In Colombia, the commitment was evident last year after the assassination of the country's justice minister, who at the time was involved in a crackdown on drug traffickers. Colombian President Belisario Betancur responded to the murder by declaring war on the illicit narcotics industry. His country has launched a large-scale marijuana and coca eradication program with US assistance.
According to US estimates, Colombian police are currently destroying or seizing between 50 to 55 percent of Colombia's marijuana crop.
In addition, Colombia is cooperating with its neighbors to help them battle drug traffickers. Last week Peruvian police were transported in Colombian police aircraft to remote cocaine-manufacturing sites in Peru. Some 3,000 pounds of cocaine base were confiscated along with five aircraft and an arsenal of weapons, says David L. Westrate, assistant administrator for operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
While officials are encouraged by the changing attitudes of regional leaders, they stress that the war on narcotics traffickers is not over.
According to estimates by the House Narcotics Committee, production of raw coca leaves has more than doubled in the last two years in both Bolivia and Peru. In Colombia, the committee estimates that illicit coca-leaf production has increased from 15,000 tons two years ago to about 25,000 tons now.